Dragon Productions Theatre Company's "The How and the Why" starts off, much like the relationship between the play's protagonists, a bit awkwardly; playwright Sarah Treem's sharp dialogue at first flowing not quite naturally from actors Kelly Rinehart and Alicia Piemme Nelson. But that's appropriate, given that their characters, esteemed academic Zelda Kahn (Rinehart) and fiery graduate student Rachel Hardeman (Nelson), only start to become at ease with each other over the progression of the show.
The play mixes cerebral concepts with heartfelt emotion in a satisfying way, with its two lead characters (in fact, the only two characters ever shown) proving to be endearingly flawed. Directed by Lana Palmer, who also handles costumes and sound design, the Dragon's production is intimate, compelling and full of interesting ideas.
Zelda and Rachel, we can tell right from the start, have a lot in common as well as some big differences to come to terms with. Both curly-haired and bespectacled, when Rachel marches into Zelda's office for an introductory meeting we feel elder professor Zelda's desire to remain cool and collected, while embittered young Rachel is always ready for a fight. Both women are high-achieving, professional evolutionary biologists, and whether this is a twist of fate, a purposeful career path or a genetic predisposition is one of the topics discussed. Zelda is a professor at a university in Cambridge, Massachusetts (presumably Harvard). She is eminent in her field, partly because of her work decades ago in pioneering "the Grandmother hypothesis," which suggests that the reason for menopause, and the reason many women live past menopause (outlasting their biological "usefulness" in strictly childbearing terms), is to help raise their grandchildren, thus giving their descendents an evolutionary advantage. Rachel, a grad student at New York University, has a new theory involving evolution and women's reproductive system. She posits that human menstruation evolved as a defense mechanism against the pathological nature of sperm. The theories would seem to contradict each other. Or do they? Finding common academic and scientific ground is one thing, but the two women, despite being strangers, clearly also share a more personal connection (I won't give it away here but the nature of that connection becomes apparent pretty early on).
Zelda is appalled that Rachel would be willing to share credit for her scientific work with her less-accomplished boyfriend, while Rachel wonders if Zelda's career success has been worth the personal sacrifices. "Does the Grandmother hypothesis keep you warm at night?" she snarls (Zelda answers that yes, in fact, it does).
Zelda and Rachel's discussions, first held in Zelda's office and, in Act 2, at a local dive bar, expand farther than their academic theories to cover issues of love, sex, feminism, ambition, nature versus nurture and more, exploring how "the how" and "the why" of life itself. How often throughout history have the contributions by women been overlooked or overshadowed by their male counterparts? And why have female bodies so often been viewed through a male lens, reduced to their viability for childbearing or sexual attraction? How can brainy, ambitious women best navigate the persistent double standards society throws at them? And why should they have to? What's the value of professional accomplishment versus romance and/or family life? And just what is the evolutionary purpose of menstruation and menopause, anyway?
Scenic design by Isaac Fine is underwhelming, although not much is needed in the way of sets or props for this dialogue-based show. Palmer's costumes, with Zelda in sharp, attractive professorial-casual and Rachel in slightly grungy, slightly hipster early millennial-casual, do compliment their characters' personalities nicely (and I really covet Rachel's shiny black lace-up shoes).
Rinehart and Nelson are both strong in their roles. Rinehart, while looking younger than her 56-year-old character, portrays well both Zelda's veneer of smooth confidence and her vulnerable, anxious side. Nelson's prickly Rachel comes off as abrasive, and seems often more of a petulant teen than a 28-year-old. But she has some good reasons for her attitude, and the actors share palpable chemistry, which is all-important in a two-person show. You root for them both, and for their fragile -- evolving, if you will -- relationship.
What: "The How and the Why."
Where: Dragon Productions Theatre Company, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City.
When: Through Aug. 4. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. Sunday at 2 p.m.
Info: Dragon Theatre.